Sicily's big brand dilemma

  • Friday 3 July 2009

Has Italy’s biggest commercial success come at a price? carla capalbo looks at Sicily’s dilemma: the lucrative route of bulk wine and international varieties or the promotion of local varieties and regional terroirs

Five years ago, Sicily was the name on every wine drinker’s lips. The next big thing, the one place in Italy able to offer solutions for all tastes and prices. Today? The jury is still out. Is Brand Sicilia working, or has the bubble burst? And will it become known for quality or quantity?

‘Sicilian viticulture is still a work in progress,’ says Lucio Tasca d’Almerita of Regaleali, the historic estate high up in unspoiled open hills, and planted to vines as far as the eye can see.

‘Sicily may be an island, but we think of it as a large continent, with areas that go from the hot beaches of the south to the black volcanic soils of Etna and the plains of Trapani. Add a multitude of grapes and you have a complex picture that can’t be categorised under one simple heading.’

Certainly the island’s growth has made it difficult for wine lovers to keep up. In 1960, there were only two key wineries in Sicily – Tasca and Corvo. By 2004 that number had risen to 250; today there are almost 600. These include some of Europe’s largest co-ops, a score of imposing, privately owned estates, and a myriad of small wineries, most of which are family run.

Quality varies as much as size. You can pick up plonk from the co-ops for as little as 70 cents a bottle, while award-winning labels from the key players sell for more than E30 each.

‘To get a realistic picture,’ says Fabio Piccoli, wine writer and expert on Sicilian wines, ‘you have to imagine Sicilian wine production as a vast, 7-million hectolitre pyramid, as big as Australia’s output. But of this, only the top 15% is ever bottled; the rest is sold sfuso, unbottled, or as must. And there are large interests in this “lake”, both economic and political.’

To add to the equation, a sizeable sector of sfuso wine is tanker-shipped to be bottled in other countries where it can be custom-packaged for mass retail. ‘That makes it hard for consumers to know what they are drinking,’ Piccoli adds.

Nero d’Avola is a case in point. This fashionable red grape traditionally grew on the white-hot soils in the island’s south-east, near Noto and Pachino, and makes truly distinctive wines when bush-trained without irrigation, as at Gulfi.

Other estates have planted new vineyards with trellis training and irrigation, succeeding with less complex wines. ‘Nero d’Avola seemed the answer to the world’s quest for a global-style red to compete with Cabernet, Syrah or Merlot,’ says Piccoli. ‘As its popularity increased, it was planted all over Sicily, in good places and bad.’

‘Nero d’Avola was set to become the red Pinot Grigio,’ says Alessio Planeta, whose family estates are among Sicily’s leading lights. ‘It can deliver good wines in different price ranges. But recently its image has been tarnished by unscrupulous winemaking, mostly by non-islanders. Its potential for easy, early-drinking wines is still enormous. Our work is to make it as recognisable to the drinker as Sauvignon.’

Anton Rössner is a German buyer and winemaker who comes to Sicily to select batches of wines and advise producers on how to make wines to fit his clients’ profiles.

‘I’m more optimistic about Sicily now than I was 10 years ago,’ he says. ‘Previously, producers were often short-term in their goals: they tried to meet market demand by planting international varieties on a large scale. Growers produced as much as possible, quality came second. That’s changing as more people look to the character of Sicilian regions as the source of their wines’ identity.’

Sharper focus

The recent history of Sicilian wine divides into phases. In the late 1970s, great innovators such as Marco de Bartoli in Marsala and Pantelleria, or Carlo Hauner on the island of Lipari, sought to bring dignity to legendary winemaking areas that had fallen into decline or, in the case of Marsala, ridicule. They became ambassadors for Sicily, placing their wines in the world’s top restaurants, lifting its image out of feudal indifference.

Meanwhile, bulk wines were being produced to feed the giant industries of aperitif producers like Martini & Rossi, as well as to ‘correct’ leaner northern wines. By the mid-1990s, Brand Sicilia was being carried high on the shoulders of estates whose names are now familiar trademarks globally: Tasca, Planeta, Donnafugata, Cusumano, Rallo, Firriato, Corvo, Duca di Salaparuta, Spadafora…

In the 1990s and 2000s, seeing the chance to make alcohol-rich wines to boost their portfolios, vast northern holdings such as Zonin, Feudo Aranci, Marzotto and others invested heavily in Sicily and the south, where labour was cheaper and the sun always shone.

If some of that wine went north in a tanker rather than a bottle, few eyebrows were raised.

Given the impressive size of its total vineyards (140,000ha), Sicily has relatively few historic DOCs – including Alcamo, Etna, Pantelleria and Faro – and only one DOCG, Cerasuolo di Vittoria (see right).

A flurry of recent DOCs has sought to give authority to producers as much as to their locations, with mixed results. Today’s call by the region’s agriculture minister for a larger Sicilia DOC has left producers divided.

‘They claim it would boost the island’s image, but perhaps the only positive aspect is that it would prohibit Sicilian wines from being bottled outside the island,’ says Francesco Spadafora, whose estate near Monreale is one of Sicily’s most respected.

‘It wouldn’t help consumers, who would find Sicilia DOC wines for E1.50 on the shelves alongside wines of the same appellation of a much higher calibre.’ It’s also probable that the northerners and some wholesalers would abandon ship if they were forced to bottle in Sicily.

The cost of creating distribution networks for those millions of bottles would be prohibitive. Right now, the chances of the Sicilia DOC being created seem slim, for political reasons.

So what’s the solution? ‘The French founded their whole idea of viticulture on terroir, but here they want to put everything in the same pot,’ continues Spadafora.

‘We should return to zoning: focus our winemaking on the best areas and on the grapes best suited to them.’ Spadafora points to the ambitious project begun by the regional Istituto del Vino e della Vite in the 1990s, led by Diego Planeta, Giacomo Tachis and Attilio Scienza, which saw thousands of small, O’Keefeexperimental vineyards being set up. ‘Unfortunately its very interesting results have been largely ignored,’ he says.

Volcanic activity

In this time of economic uncertainty, Spadafora has noted an increased demand for Sicily’s tried and tested wine firms. ‘People are returning to family-run estates which have remained constant in products and prices. They want to spend their money wisely. For small producers, it’s a cut-throat situation: the big companies are offering wines at silly prices and deals to pressurise retailers.’

The consequences for smaller players, producing more characterful wines, are dire. Despite this, most agree the way forward is in its place-specific, terroir wines. The best example is Etna, where a wine revolution has taken place in the past eight years.

If the dramatic landscapes of the volcano’s north face attest to the area’s ancient vinegrowing history, until very recently few people understood its wines. The gnarled old vines on dry-stone terraces risked being grubbed up in EU-sponsored schemes. Thank goodness they didn’t get there in time.

The volcano’s early champion was the Benanti estate and winemaker Salvo Foti – the first to see potential in the native grape, Nerello Mascalese. But Nerello really took off thanks to central-Italian winemakers Andrea Franchetti and Marc de Grazia.

With points of reference as noble as Barolo and Burgundy, de Grazia in particular has proved to be the catalyst the area needed. Not only is he making some of the mountain’s best wines – including a super pre-phylloxera Nerello – but he has encouraged many local producers to improve their wines.

The tiny Girolamo Russo estate is a good example: Giuseppe Russo won some of Italy’s most prestigious wine awards last year with only his third vintage.

Big Sicilian estates are buying into Etna now, too. As de Grazia says: ‘They can’t do without a Nerello on their lists. There’s a limit to how much Syrah and Cabernet you can sell with pseudo-Norman or Arabic names. Today there’s a thirst for identity, and DOCs as compelling as Etna are hard to come by.’

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